National Parks: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Apr 21, 2019
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, straddling the border between Tennessee & North Carolina, is by far the the most visited National Park in America. It's 11.4 million visitors in 2018 dwarfs the competition, the Grand Canyon was a distant second with 6.3 million visitors. The fact that there is no entrance fee doesn't hurt, but it's also within driving distance of the major population centers of the east coast. It is recognized not only as a national park, but also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an International Biosphere Reserve. It is truly a unique place. In the years that I lived in Tennessee, it was also my home park, where I spent a lot of time in all seasons.
If you're picturing the Smokies in your mind, you're probably picturing one of two things. One would be something like the picture at the top, with a seemingly endless stream of mountain ridges, somewhat obscured by fog, probably at sunrise or sunset. That picture was taken at Clingmans Dome, one of two most popular sunset locations in the park. The other you might be thinking of would be Cades Cove, where there are open fields, historic churches and cabins, and deer often roaming out in the open. Cades Cove is also the place where most of those 11 million people go. You'll find plenty of groups online devoted to it, to the deer that are easily seen there, and to the bears that are seen there probably more than any other area of the park. The open fields and historic structures in the Cove are remnants of the well established community that was there in the pre-Park days. The Park Service manages the valley as a historic area to look much like it did then. The Cove is an easily accessible area, and it's popularity means that on almost any weekend out of the year there will be bumper to bumper traffic on the loop road that travels through it. Visiting the area on a weekday can help to some degree, but it will always be the most popular area in the Park.
Besides the diversity of wildlife you can find in the Smokies, the diversity of plant life is also quite amazing. The wildflwoer season begins in the coves at the lower elevations of the park in late March, and continues into July on the high ridges traversed by the Appalachian Trail. Flowers can carpet the hillsides in a way I've seen nowehere else, and the diversity can keep a macro shooter busy for hours. Things change direction come autumn, as the forests on the ridge tops get things started, and then the colors work their way all the down over the next few weeks. The month of October, the peak time for fall colors, is probably the park's busiest time.
So where can one find solitude and out of the way places in the nation's most visited National Park? If it's history and wildlife you're looking for, you'll find it in another valley on the North Carolina side of the park as well. Since the reintroduction of elk into the park about 15 years ago, the Cataloochee Valley has been growing in popularity. It is the place in the park to see the elk, as it is where they were first released, and it is becoming less of a secret all the time. It is a little harder to access though, on the southeast corner of the park up a bumpy dirt road. Once there, you enter another historic settlement, but smaller and more secluded than Cades Cove. If you're patient, and get there in the morning or hang around until late afternoon, you will have a great chance to see the elk come out into the fields. I've never visited Cataloochee witout seeing them.
If your desire is to escape the tourists, let the park's 850 miles of hiking trails call to you. I tend to say that once you've ventured more than a mile from the road you've probably left the tourists behind. There are many areas in the Smokies that do not disappoint in this regard. The Greenbrier area has the Porters Creek Trail, one of the best places in the park to see early spring wildflowers, and the trail leading to the tallest waterfall in the park, Ramsey Cascades. The Ramsey Cascades Trail also happens to be the first place I came upon a bear in the backcountry. In the northeast corner of the park, on the TN/NC border, you'll find the Big Creek area. There are some great backpacking trips that can be done in this area, and in late spring and early summer the forest here is amazingly lush. The creek is also very scenic, including Mouse Creek Falls flowing into it, easily visible from the hiking trail that follows alongside the creek. The Deep Creek area near Bryson City on the North Carolina side of the park is very nice, with a short loop hike that delivers three different waterfalls. One of the most interesting backpacking trips you'll find here also leaves out of Bryson City, folllowing the Lakeshore Trail along the north shore of Fontana Lake to the dam at Fontana Village. This area of the park wasn't added until the creation of the lake during WWII, and residents that lived in this area were forced to pack up and leave rather quickly once the lake started to fill up. Most signs of the towns are now gone, but the western end of the trail still has the hulks of some old cars that were abandoned by residents on their way out. Some of the towns are now entombed under the waters of the lake. When we hiked this trail in 2008, we saw almost no one else for most of the 4 days that we were out there. The Appalachian Trail crosses the park for 72 miles as well, and while sections of it are quite popular for day hikers (such as the hike out to Charlies Bunion), it leads into some of the wilder areas of the park as well.
Sunrises and sunsets in the park can often be quite brilliant, but the prime locations are well known and you might find yourself jockeying for position to place your tripod in your optimal spot. Most places have quite a bit of room to go around, but a less well known spot like doing sunrise on the eastern facing overlooks of the Foothills Parkway West may find you more solitute and a different perspective.
The downfall for the Smokies being located so close to the major population centers of the east is that especially in the summertime air pollution can close its expansive views down to visibility of just 10 or 15 miles. Besides the natural humidity of the area that creates the distinctive fog and plumes of "smoke" that are most common after a rain storm, ozone and particulates in the air create a thick, impenitrable haze in the air on hot summer days. Visits in the other seasons of the year can improve the situation, but it can still be a challenge. The park service maintains web cams at the western and eastern ends of the park to show current conditions, as weel as archived views from the past since the cameras were installed.
On your visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I hope you'll find your way to some of my favorite spots, and don't let the potential crowds of people get you down. Like anywhere else, a weekday visit instead of on the weekends gets you ahead of the crowds already, and these tips will only help you more. It truly is a beautiful place to visit, and I highly recommend it, even if you're heading straight for Cades Cove. ;)
This is the first of a few posts highlighting our National Parks for National Parks week, and sharing some of my favorite places to visit in them. I hope you'll take a peek at my National Parks Gallery as well while you're here! If you're enjoying following my posts here on my blog, don't forget to follow me on Facebook & Instagram as well. You'll often see my latest photos there first! If you'd like to order a print of any of these photos, just click on them and you'll be taken to my art store where you can place your order. Thanks for following along!